Foreign Policy Blogs

Niira Radia Tapes and the Question of Journalistic Ethics

“The sole aim of journalism should be service. The newspaper is a great power, but just as an unchained torrent of water submerges whole countryside and devastates crops, even so an uncontrolled pen serves but to destroy. If the control is from without, it proves more poisonous than want of control. It can be profitable only when exercised from within.”       Mahatma Gandhi, An Autobiography of My Experiments With Truth.

barkha-dutt-nira-radia-300x183The issue of control from without and within lies at the root of the recent Niira Radia tapes controversy in India.

Niira Radia heads Vaishnavi Communications, a Public Relations (PR) firm, set up in 2001. The client list of Vaishnavi Communications includes some big corporate houses in the country, Tata and Reliance being the most prized ones. Radia, now being referred to less as a PR person and more as a lobbyist, was involved in liaisoning among corporate houses, journalists, politicians and bureaucrats. The Radia tapes, fallout of the infamous 2G spectrum scam, raise questions about the credibility of some leading journalists and the nexus of corporate-media-political interests in the country. The Enforcement Directorate had launched an investigation into the 5,800 reported taped conversations from Radia’s phone over a six-month period in 2009, all transactions with tax implications are being looked into. These tapes were leaked to the media and have further fuelled the controversy.

Two news magazines, Outlook and Open published extracts from the Radia tapes last week fuelling public outrage over the alleged 2G scam. The Radia tapes feed into three related controversies in the country: 1) the 2G spectrum allocation scam, 2) explicit evidence of corporate involvement in Cabinet formation and policy decisions in New Delhi and 3) credibility of news given the journalists’ closeness to vested interests.

The tapes reveal Niira Radia’s role in influencing cabinet formation after Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s mandate to govern the country was renewed in 2008. Radia also influenced the allocation of licence for 2G spectrum for mobile phones. Radia is known to be a close associate of former telecom Minister A. Raja who is under the scanner for the 2G spectrum allotment that is presumed to have caused the Government a revenue loss of up to Rs 1.76 lakh crore. The 2G scam has rendered the Parliament non-functional for the past two weeks and raised questions regarding the alleged ‘inaction’ by the Prime Minister’s Office in dealing with the initial reports of the 2G scam. The 2G scam is the latest in a series of political corruption charges against the ruling United Progressive Alliance. My colleague Manasi refers to recent scams in and dismal assessment of India by the Global Financial Integrity Report.

Even though the linkage between corporate interests and political decisions is neither novel nor exclusive to India, the tapes have focussed attention on the uncomfortable truth. Majority of Indians may be aware that corporate interests run the political show but it is painful to digest explicit evidence of the same. Tata group chief Ratan Tata has moved the Supreme Court seeking a direction to the government to probe the leakage of tapes containing his private conversations with corporate lobbyist Niira Radia, and stop further publication of the same. It appears that the corporate groups are not apologetic about their indulgence in political decision making but are attempting to ensure a more secure environment to do so.

The most alarming aspect of the Radia tapes has been the alleged involvement of journalists in political and corporate deal-making. The tapes appear to suggest that the country’s top journalists including Vir Sanghvi, Barkha Dutt, Prabhu Chawla, G. Ganapathy Subramaniam and M.K. Venu acted as go-betweens and information carriers between political parties and corporate houses. The journalists have objected to the use of the term “lobbyist” to describe their role and claim to be simply undertaking journalistic duties. Vir Sanghvi and Barkha have used the print, electronic and social media to clarify their positions and express anguish at the allegations. While the mainstream media is treading cautiously the social media is buzzing with discussions about credibility of journalists and authenticity of news. Twitter is flooded with tweets on ‘Barkhagate’.

Swapan Das Gupta succinctly summaries the issues involved in the controversy surrounding the Indian journalists in the light of the Radia tapes exposure. “The media has suffered collateral damage from the Radia tapes. Many conversations Radia had with sundry journalists were innocuous: some exchanges of real information and lots of media tittle-tattle. But there were three sets of conversations that warrant a little extra attention. First, there were requests to the journalists to use their privileged access to politicians to carry messages and influence important political decisions. Secondly, there were discussions for a “pre-scripted” interview with a corporate notable, including the offer of a dummy run. And finally, there was the guarded sales pitch by an editor of his ability to influence Supreme Court judgements — an audacious hint that was subsequently brought to the attention of the apex court itself.”

It is naive to expect that media houses do not have corporate interests. As P. Sainath writes, “The dominant media are not pro-corporate or pro-big business. They are corporates. They are big business.” While it is simpler to explain the corporate interests of media houses it is difficult for the Indian public to accept journalists as ‘stenographers of power’. Saba Naqvi, a journalist, echoes the public sentiment when she writes that, “As a political correspondent we have to develop the ability to get information and cultivate sources without letting them cultivate and use us.”

Even if the defence offered by some journalists that they merely posed as messengers to get information is accepted their apparent camaraderie with vested interests has raised questions about their credibility. Media outlets across the globe have political leanings; the Republican slant of Fox News is not shocking for most Americans. The political leaning of news channels is more defined in other countries than in India, thereby allowing the audience to judge the news accordingly. The claim of neutrality by Indian media outlets with simultaneous jugglery of political and corporate interests tend to confuse the audience and raise doubts about the credibility of news reports. Though media outlets with political preferences may be acceptable, it is difficult for a Rush Limbaugh to survive in India. Media houses can have preferences but most Indians expect journalists and renowned editors to be neutral and credible; a fact demonstrated in the Radia tapes controversy in social media.

Role of journalists as message carriers and deal makers is neither entirely objectionable nor shockingly new. Rammohan Roy, founder of Sangbad Kaumudi –  a Bengali newspaper, was modern India’s first liberal thinker. Roy’s responsibility as a journalist, activist and political thinker did not interrupt his role as a messenger to the Royal court in London in 1830 when he lobbied for increasing the Mughal Emperor’s allowance and perquisites. The issue here is not whether journalists should/shouldn’t lobby; it is about what they lobby for – public interest or journalistic advantage or corporate desires.



Madhavi Bhasin

Blogger, avid reader, observer and passionate about empowerment issues in developing countries.
Work as a researcher at Center for South Asia Studies, UC Berkeley and intern at Institute of International Education.
Areas of special interest include civil society, new social media, social and political trends in India.